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© BEOWULF SHEEHAN 2019
The grief that many Americans were feeling was compounded for Evans by the recent loss of her beloved mother, Dawn Valore Martin BC’78, a tenacious civil rights lawyer who died of cancer in 2017. In the silence of her apartment, Evans mourned the absence of “the only person in my life who would have refused to leave me alone.” She wrote that there was an additional sadness that came from seeing Covid-19’s outsized impact on the Black community, especially “how many of the early faces of the dead [were] Black women my mother’s age.”
The Office of Historical Corrections was finally published in November. It took more risks with style and subject than her first book, which had earned her a place in the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35”; Evans calls it “weirder.” The evolution clearly worked for reviewers: There were long raves from The New Yorker (“an extraordinary new collection”) and The Washington Post (“magnificent, searing”). The Office’s six stories and a long novella, grouped around the dual themes of grieving and “trying to make things right,” were exactly in tune with the nation’s focus on issues of racial justice. The New York Times commented that Evans’s “sensitivity to issues of race and power feel particularly resonant in 2020.” In April, she was awarded the 2021 Joyce Carol Oates Prize.
Evans was a double-major in anthropology and African-American studies, and she took creative writing courses, working on short fiction. Now an assistant professor in Johns Hopkins’s prestigious creative writing program, (“the fanciest of the series of schools I’ve taught at”), Evans says she appreciates having had the chance to learn about the process of revision from Black professors like Victor LaValle SOA’98 and Mat Johnson SOA’99. Almost a third of the stories in her first book originated at the College.
Evans says that short stories will always be her first love. She values their compression and complexity, and she likes that they permit her to “shape-shift” and assume new viewpoints at will. The form also allows her to avoid giving readers simple answers to the complicated questions she wants to pose. While she still finds cause for both the hope and the anger that thread through her stories, she says, “I am trying to imagine an After that looks better than the Before.”
The best example of Evans’s particular mixture of hot-button concerns and deeply felt emotion is the collection’s powerful title novella, “The Office of Historical Corrections,” excerpted here. Cassie, a former history professor, is a field worker for the Institute for Public History, a fictitious but all-too-relevant agency with the mission of correcting factual mistakes in the wake of “fake news.” As she becomes embroiled in an ever-more complex case involving “passing” and white supremacy, she is forced to reflect on “the daily trauma of the historical record, the sometimes brutality and sometimes banality of anti-Blackness, the loop of history that was always a noose if you looked at it long enough.”
— Rose Kernochan BC’82
Our office was tucked away in a back corridor of one of the city’s labyrinth brutalist buildings, all beige concrete and rows of square windows. I had never minded DC’s lingering architecture; I had been in college before I understood I was meant to find it ugly and not cozily utilitarian. But I had grown up with the architecture, grown up idealizing people who worked in buildings like mine, and besides, I liked to remember that the term brutalism came not from any aesthetic assessment, but from the French for “raw concrete.” Since starting at the institute, I had formally corrected mistaken claims about the term’s etymology seven times. Small corrections usually made me feel pitiful and pedantic, but I liked making that one, liked to think of us, not just the people in my office, but all of the city’s remaining civil servants, as people trying to make something solid out of what raw material we had been given, liked to think that we were in the right setting to do our jobs.
Of course, as a field agent, I rarely spent a full day indoors. Often that freedom felt like a luxury, but it was June — not quite the worst of summer, but hot enough that walking my regular daily rounds left me flecked with sweat and constantly looking for excuses to go indoors. Some days I went into shops full of kitsch and corrected souvenirs with their dates wrong just to absorb the air-conditioning. After everything else, I would remember how often I had been bored at the beginning of that summer, how worried I was that our work had become inconsequential, how I had wondered whether I would ever again be a part of anything that mattered.
The vision for the Institute for Public History that summoned me from my former job as a history professor at GW had been grandiose. An ambitious freshman congresswoman demanded funding to put a public historian in every zip code in the country, a correction for what she called the contemporary crisis of truth. It was pitched as a new public works project for the intellectual class, so many of us lately busy driving cars and delivering groceries and completing tasks on demand to make ends meet. Government jobs would put all those degrees to work and be comparatively lucrative. The congresswoman envisioned a national network of fact-checkers and historians, a friendly citizen army devoted to making the truth so accessible and appealing it could not be ignored. We had started as a research institute, loosely under the direction of the Library of Congress — an NIH for a different sort of public health crisis. We were the solution for decades of bad information and bad faith use of it. Our work was to protect the historical record, not to pick fights (guideline 1) or correct people’s readings of current news (guideline 2).
The post-election energy that created us had stalled almost immediately; the former congresswoman was now a TV pundit. At the institute, we were only forty people total, twenty of us headquartered in DC. The reduced parameters of our mission often led people to assume we were overzealous tour guides or long-winded museum employees who had strayed from our home base. Some of my colleagues leaned into the misunderstanding: Bill circled monuments correcting tourists with their facts mixed up, sometimes just by reading them the placards they’d walked by; Sophie rarely worked beyond the Smithsonian grounds; Ed hung out in breweries all day, but he checked in each week with such a lengthy log of plausible corrections no one was sure whether he was a friendly and efficient drunk or a gifted writer of fictional dialogue.
I had been at IPH for four years then, and I wanted to take my charge seriously. To keep from falling into routine, I assigned myself a different DC neighborhood each month. For June, I was in Capitol Hill, where shortly after correcting a tourist who thought the Rayburn Building was named after Gene Rayburn, I realized it was lunchtime. The block surrounding me was cluttered with restaurants that had puns for names and sold expensive comfort food from ostentatiously nostalgic chrome countertops; it all felt sinister and I had settled on pizza when I walked past a bakery, its pink awning reading CAKE EVERYDAY COUNT in loopy cursive that mimicked frosting. I hated the name — the attempt at a double entendre failing to properly be even a single entendre — but it was Daniel’s birthday, and I caught the towering cupcake trees in the window display, heaps of red and cocoa and gold. Cupcakes would seem light and full of options, I thought, and so I walked in and considered flavors before deciding cupcakes were wrong, a variety of cupcakes would say I was a child who could not make up her mind, or else invite him to imagine the opposite — me fully domesticated and walking triumphantly into a PTA meeting, as if that were the future I was waiting for him to offer me. I walked farther down the counter, past the wedding cakes, and the photorealistic DC landmark cakes, and the cakes carved into shoes and champagne bottles and cartoons, looking for something unobtrusive.
The correction was so minor that four-years-ago-me would have decided it wasn’t worth it. A display cake read JUNETEENTH! in red frosting, surrounded by red, white, and blue stars and fireworks. A flyer taped to the counter above it encouraged patrons to consider ordering a Juneteenth cake early: We all know about the Fourth of July! the flyer said. But why not start celebrating freedom a few weeks early and observe the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation! Say it with cake! One of the two young women behind the bakery counter was Black, but I could guess the bakery’s owner wasn’t. The neighborhood, the prices, the twee acoustic music drifting out of sleek speakers: I knew all of the song’s words, but everything about the space said who it was for. My memories of celebrating Juneteenth in DC were my parents taking me to someone’s backyard BBQ, eating banana pudding and peach cobbler and strawberry cake made with Jell-O mix; at not one of them had I seen a seventy-five-dollar bakery cake that could be carved into the shape of a designer handbag for an additional fee. The flyer’s sales pitch — so much hanging on that We all know — was targeted not to the people who’d celebrated Juneteenth all along but to office managers who’d feel hectored into not missing a Black holiday or who just wanted an excuse for miscellaneous dessert.
“Excuse me,” I said, my finger still resting on the countertop above the flyer. The young Black woman turned around.
“You want that cake?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “Hi. I’m Cassie. I’m with the Institute for Public History.”
The white woman turned around, but both women looked at me without registering that the name meant anything.
“It’s not a big deal,” I said. “We don’t give orders or anything. We’re a public service. Like 311! But I thought you’d like to know that this flyer’s not quite correct. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862. Juneteenth is celebrated nationally because it’s become a holiday for the whole diaspora, but it actually recognizes the date slaves in Texas learned they were free, which was in June 1865, after the end of the Civil War.”
“Mmkay,” said the white woman.
“I’m just going to leave a note. A tiny correction.”
I pulled out a corrections sticker — double holographed and printed, at considerable expense, with a raised seal; though easily mocked they were almost never properly duplicated. I typed the correction into the office’s one futuristic indulgence — the handheld printers we’d all been issued when we were first hired — and ran a sticker through it to print my text. I signed my name and the date, peeled it from its backing, and affixed it to the counter beside the flyer.
“There,” I said. “No biggie.”
I smiled and met both women’s eyes. We were not supposed to be aggressive in demanding people’s time — correct the misinformation as swiftly and politely as possible (guideline 3) — but we were supposed to make it clear we were available for further inquiry or a longer conversation if anyone wanted to know more (guideline 5). We were supposed to be prepared to cite our sources (guideline 7).
“You gonna buy a cake?” said the Black woman. “Or you came in about the flyer?”
“Oh,” I said. “Yes. I’m kind of dating someone and it’s his birthday. I was trying to decide what kind of cake would be best. Or I don’t know, maybe cupcakes are better. Do you have any favorites?”
“Ma’am, if you show up for your man’s birthday with you and a cake and he complains about it, you’re not even kind of dating him anymore. It doesn’t matter the kind of cake.”
“You’re right,” I said. “Give me that one.”
I pointed at something labeled BLACKOUT CAKE. “Like an Oreo cookie without the cream” said the description. I could tell Daniel I had bought him the blackest cake in the store.
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Columbia Alumni Center
622 W. 113th St., MC 4530, 4th Fl.
New York, NY 10025